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Jacob is wrestling his inner demons. Literally. In Alameddine’s newest novel, the aftermath of a half-century of war, disease, religious strife, and sexual liberation has left a Middle Eastern San Francisco-based poet addled and on the verge of neurotic collapse.
The son of a Yemeni prostitute and an absentee father, young Jacob is raised by a colorful cast of “aunties” at a Cairo brothel and, later, by a stern but subversive Catholic nun in Beirut. It’s here, under Sœur Emmanuelle’s tutelage, that Jacob first learns about the Fourteen Holy Helpers, auxiliary saints that the church has moved away from. Church orthodoxy notwithstanding, Jacob is as smitten with his saints as he is by submission, something he got a taste of at the brothel. As his peripatetic life takes him around the globe, Jacob learns to rely on the counsel and intercession of his motley crew of martyrs to help him navigate the various injustices and microaggressions that a queer person from the Arab world living in the United States encounters. The saints may be a godsend, but Jacob’s greatest ally is a better know figure: Satan. Almaddine’s Prince of Darkness has a decided Miltonian inflection and acts on Jacob’s behalf in a way seemingly at odds with his popular perception. There’s little demonic ne’er do well-ing here and the only mortification of the flesh afoot occurs in BDSM dungeons. As the human cost of the AIDS epidemic and an endless war in his homeland pushes Jacob to forget what he’s experienced, it’s Satan that corrals the Fourteen in a quest to save Jacob from casting himself into oblivion at a psychiatric clinic. “[Y]ou’re still mildly sane,” Satan beseeches Jacob at one point, “bid adieu to this forsaken place.”
Alameddine’s novel, like his Twitter account, is a colleague of allusions to pop culture, art, and whimsy. While at times the effect can overwhelm, it’s all in service to a larger idea. Namely, that the condition of modern life, especially for the marginalized, is one of precarity and absurdist choices. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the fable Alameddine spins about a drone that falls in love with a young, Middle Eastern boy and goes rogue to save the boy and his village. Snippets like this thread through the narrative like brilliant gossamer, mimicking the delicate balance of the protagonist’s psyche. He may be courting forgetfulness, but Jacob’s mind (with a little prompting from Satan) sparks with the free association of a richly-lived life. Late in the novel Jacob confesses that he can hardly “bear living with [his] memories,” but Almaddine seems to suggest few alternatives exist for the persecuted. When the choice is between oblivion and suffering, the latter can be the only moral choice. As thousands of years of religious tradition and generations of queer sexual liberation have shown, there can be great pleasure in suffering.
The Angel of History
By Rabih Almaddine
Atlantic Monthly Press
Hardcover, 9780802125767, 304 pp.